Updated: Jan 15, 2020
A Release Train Engineer asked me which of team ceremonies she ought to attend. My answer was that she needs to attend many of them regularly but not every single one. Of course the reason behind the question is often more interesting than the question itself but first a little background.
The term Release Train Engineer (RTE for short) has become well known for those followers of the Scaled Agile Framework where it is used to refer to the ScrumMaster of a Team of Teams also known as a Release Train. It is also a term used in many places where we see agility at scale.
The RTE role belongs in the same family as ScrumMasters and coaches so we expect RTEs to exhibit many of the same servant leader attributes. Servant leaders have a passion for a passion for people and their continued development so we expect RTEs to mentor and help ScrumMasters. The sheepdog analogy is a popular one when explaining the ScrumMaster role and similarly we expect RTEs to use their enhanced vision to help them see the path ahead, spot dangers early and sometimes use their sharp teeth to protect their flock from predators.
We can’t protect teams if we don’t know where they are and we can’t help them improve if we don’t understand them. The only way to get a good understanding of strengths and areas for improvement is through direct observation. In Lean parlance we call this going to the gemba: the place where the real work gets done. This can’t be a once in a blue moon sporadic event. If observers shows up only when there are problems then our gemba walks resemble oversight and we never build trust with the teams.
Which brings us back to the original question. As it turns out, the team is reluctant to have the RTE observe their ceremonies. There are personality clashes within the team and the planning events and ceremonies are not going smoothly. There is not psychologically safety within the team and they would prefer to wait till things are a little more stable before they invite outside observers.
I think we can empathize with the team, we might have been there before ourselves. But if we only include others when things are going well we miss a very important learning opportunity for everybody.
When things are painful, a natural inclination is to decrease the frequency.
For example deployment can be such a drain to all that we change from quarterly releases to just twice a year. For some of us this might result in a bestselling book but rest of us might not be so lucky.
When events are difficult and distracting it is usually better to increase the frequency of the event. This applies to cleaning your house, system integration, product deployment and yes, also visiting the gemba. If the team invited outside observers more often they would begin to feel more comfortable with their presence, the observers would cease to be viewed as oversight and more as a valuable extension to the team.
With greater transparency we create more opportunities for people to learn from each other and it can't just be the good stuff. If we don’t observe the downs as well as the ups then we end up like the Queen of England believing the whole world smells of fresh paint.